RTÉ’s failure is not only financial, it is cultural
With low-brow copies of low-grade British shows, Montrose insults Irish youth
RTÉ: If you were born in the 1990s, the national broadcaster has failed you for as long as it possibly could have. Photograph: Alan Betson
The recent national conversations about the impact of the late Gay Byrne, RTÉ’s failure to modernise, and the role of the public service broadcaster have had one thing in common; a conspicuous absence of young voices. So who is having these conversations? The decline of RTÉ should matter to young people, but it doesn’t. Instead, the debate is being had by Generation X or older. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Older people can, after all, look back to those halcyon days when the Late Late Show served to expose the hypocrisy of the national psyche, when Byrne, in tearing open a condom, tore apart a cultural consensus.
For younger people, RTÉ’s existence as an institution of social dialogue is purely anecdotal
I’m sure I would yearn for those days if I could remember them – but I don’t. The fact is that if you were born in the 1990s, RTÉ has failed you for as long as it possibly could have. You might have your suspicions – the BBC is a few clicks away after all – but you don’t really know what it means to have a functional national broadcaster. For younger people, RTÉ’s existence as an institution of social dialogue is purely anecdotal. We have never had a bishop and nightie moment, and the way things are going, it looks like we never will.
We live in an age of anxiety, one in which it is increasingly difficult for young people to shape their personal identity. This is why the function of a public service broadcaster is particularly salient for young people. RTÉ should shape the national conversation, and provide an answer to the questions of national identity.
The irony is that in trying to appeal to younger viewers, RTÉ is at best alienating, and at worst insulting that demographic. For example, nobody who thinks that they’d quite like to watch Netflix juggernaut Queer Eye first looks to RTÉ for a homespun version – they pull out a laptop and watch Queer Eye. People go to RTÉ to engage in the national conversation. What they get however, is My Yellow Brick Road, an impossibly low-brow homemade version of Queer Eye for RTÉ2 which serves no purpose in terms of the remit of a national broadcaster. Nobody wants yellow-pack versions of other TV shows from our national broadcaster, and nor should they, but that’s what they get, and if they happen to be young, that’s all they’ve ever got.
A public broadcaster should programme what other channels, beholden as they are to viewership numbers, will not. It should shape the national conversation. But when it comes to young people, RTÉ is under the impression that we want nothing more than to watch a fraught mother offering criticisms of her son’s Tinder profile on a programme called Pulling With My Parents. Just to be clear: we don’t. So to those older people who feel let down by the quality of RTÉ’s programming, remember that it could be worse. RTÉ may let you down, but it actively insults us.
It’s wrong that I don’t get to engage with Irish society through the national broadcaster in the way my parents did
The discrepancy between what’s expected of a national broadcaster and what Generation Z gets from RTÉ is what’s most alienating. If the public service broadcaster is supposed to hold up a mirror to Irish society, why is Francis Brennan going on a cruise at prime time? What message does that send to young people, and why would I ever consider paying for a TV licence? Am I really going to pay for the privilege of being excluded from the national conversation?
Much of the discussion of RTÉ’s failures focus on the broadcaster’s dire financial situation. But the national broadcaster’s failures to the youth are cultural, not financial. If it were profitable tomorrow, RTÉ would still fall well short of serving the young people of Ireland. In fact, by the looks of it, RTÉ would continue to actively exclude young people by offering them more toe-curling copies of already pretty low-rent TV programmes. At this point, would an RTÉ version of Love Island (set on Achill, maybe) even surprise us? While it might be true that this programming generates the revenue necessary to prop up RTÉ’s central mandate – current affairs and news – it’s unclear why the programmes themselves need to be of such low quality. Why can’t TV aimed at a younger audience be attractive to advertisers as well as to viewers?
In the days after Gay Byrne’s passing, we heard a lot about families sitting together in front of the Late Late Show. Not only have I never sat through an entire episode of today’s Late Late, but it would never even occur to me to switch it on, let alone gather round it with my family. It’s wrong. It’s wrong that I don’t get to engage with Irish society through the national broadcaster in the way my parents did. A national conversation should include all of the voices of the nation, but RTÉ seems to go out of its way to exclude young people.
When it was founded in 1961, despite all of its shortcomings, RTÉ represented modernity. If it continues to ignore young people, it risks being left in the past.
Harry Higgins will graduate from Trinity College Dublin this year